Poignant images from postcolonial diasporas
The scale of Let Me Begin Again, which is the second edition of South-South, a Goodman Gallery Cape Town instalment of exhibitions focusing on the Global South, floods the senses.
The sheer volume of photographic, drawing and installation work on display is beefed up by a generous and expertly curated collection of videos.
With the recent death of Fidel Castro, Cuba enters the conversation curatorially, broadening the scope of the exhibition from one that initially sought to explore Brazil’s links with Africa into one one that takes in broader questions about the complicated nature of revolutions, armed conflict in the continent and the diaspora as a whole.
Cuba dominates the exhibition thematically, or that is the feeling engendered, in part, by the ubiquity of Che Guevara’s image in Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth’s work.
In what is a work in progress, Nazareth takes the simple step of photographing men wearing Guevara T-shirts in different parts of the diaspora, and many of them in Southern Africa. He seems keen to destabilise the faux-homogeneity that the image imposes on the locations, in the service of deeper questions.
For example, the man wearing the T-shirt in Little Addis restaurant in Maboneng, Johannesburg, may well be in Ethiopia, but he is in a gentrified corner of Jo’burg.
The fact that all the images are of casual wearers in postcolonial settings makes Guevara both unifier and defanged revolutionary.
Perhaps Nazareth, whose work focuses on the historical, personal and ancestral ties that bind the diaspora, is using Guevara’s image to ask us to reassess the futility of armed uprisings if Africans are to determine their nations’ paths again. What does it mean to champion revolutionary symbols and yet continue to suffer under the heel of the so-called liberator?
In the video room, Coco Fusco’s La Confesión, a documentary on the exiling of Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, functions as a brave reappraisal of Cuba’s human rights record. Fusco’s filmic language is tender yet forthright, creating a charismatic portrait of its subject, even as he is scorned and cornered by the regime. Besides the rich visual tapestry that moves from archival material to contemporary Cuba, Fusco’s script admonishes and probes.
In the context of the entire exhibition, this polemic, directed at Guevara, stings and lingers. He is everywhere and on everything, writes Fusco, “except the Che, of course, who presided over the executions at La Cabana”.
Fusco’s dissident voice adds an alternative perspective on Cuba. Owing to its timbre and length, this film stands as the centrepiece to the videos in this exhibition, lending the show an ideological bent.
Fusco is countered, or perhaps complemented, by a video on the gallery’s third floor, which shows the Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros’ Conga Irreversible. It is basically a conga performed in reverse through Havana by a large comparsa (singers, musicians and dancers) dressed in black, led by musician Yosvany Terry. It brings Havana to a virtual standstill, as the comparsa moves backwards and the throngs of observers move alongside it, trying to catch up.
The visual effect and exuberance represents something akin to a slave revolution, pulling at unpeeled layers of Cuba’s society. The predominance of dark-skinned performers and the comparsa’s reverse motion seem to be asking the nation to take another look at its lingering striations.
As a package, the videos are compelling, with several demanding repeated viewing, such as Brazil’s Thiago Martins de Melo’s Bárbara Balaclava. It’s a nonlinear narrative driven by a shapeshifting Maroon-like protagonist who outlasts the slave industry. The film, a colourful and textural stop-motion animation apparently crafted from a collection of about 4 000 paintings of varying styles, pulverises and mystifies.
Most visitors to the gallery displayed little patience for the entire video package, which demands more than an hour of the viewer’s time.
That is excluding some of Nazareth’s confounding video contributions. A more interesting one is a black-and-white clip featuring the artist walking through Johannesburg’s Albertina Sisulu Street and into Smal Street while being filmed from behind, highlighting the feathers in his Afro.
Given that much of the film depicts only his upper body, lending his path a degree of groundlessness, it is clear that Nazareth is again toying with ideas of exoticism in the diaspora. The mystery of the film is derived from the walk itself, a device Nazareth frequently employs as an almost anthropological tool with a profound transformative effect on the artist.
Elsewhere, Nazareth, whose hair is important to his practice, has a mock pencil test performed on him by several drunk patrons in a Soweto bar, while he sits stoically as an object of fascination. That the patrons are drunk is perhaps a faux pas on the part of Nazareth and his partner in the video’s execution, photographer Jabulani Dhlamini.
Nazareth, a man from the favelas, identifies with the “vagabond spirit and the subversiveness” of drunks. But there is also the nagging reality of representation, which is hard to glibly circumvent.
More effective is Brazilian artist Flávio Cerqueira’s installation I told you, in which the bronze legs of a schoolboy lie buried under a pile of books, most of them the sweeping South African histories that are the product of white scholarship.
Also from Brazil, Rosana Paulino’s trilogy of collages, which depict varying stages of the colonial slavery encounter, is stark, miniature yet poised and selfcontained.
Kutala Chopeto’s Butora is a dual-channel video that looks at the isolation of Pomfret in North West, a former outpost of 32 Battalion populated largely by Angolans, former employees of the apartheid defence force, and now racked by economic desolation and asbestos. Children play in a dusty yard on one screen. On the other, a South African Defence Force ceremony plays out on sometimes wobbly video. The films are stark and haunting, but shown on small screens they appear innocuous and unassuming, echoing the forgotten human collateral of war and liberation.
The exhibition’s individual pieces are too many to name, but there is a sense of density to Let Me Begin Again that is satisfying and overwhelming. The exhibition literally strains against the walls of the gallery, with the viewer sensing a thread of bleakness through much of the work. If you are mapping a clockwise track through the exhibition, it is wise to view Conga Irreversible at the end.
You may need it to lift your spirit and to remember that all is not lost with la revolución.
The exhibition runs at the Goodman Gallery Cape Town until March 4.